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Analytics in Football – A Double Edged Sword
The sport as we know it today has come a long way. There was a time when watching sports on television was considered a huge step forward in terms of technology. Fast forward 60 years, watching sports on television has become a staple. Today we watch sports on the go on our mobile phones or any device with a screen and an internet connection. Proud of how far we’ve come, right? I hope I can change your mind about that by the end of this article.
What is sport? A sport is a group of people who come together to play a game with predefined rules and a referee to ensure that these rules are followed during the game. I am a sports fan and I play sports all the time. My love for tennis and football in particular cannot be defined. My problem with technology and advanced analytics was specifically with the game of football. Soccer is such a beautiful game. The strategies that the coaching staff comes up with and the way the players implement it on the field, it’s really nice. I was a football player myself (only average) and was part of various teams. I know firsthand how strategies are built, how much thought goes into one game.
Enter -> Advanced Analytics
Most of you would have seen the movie Moneyball. The film is based on a book written by Michael Lewis in 2003. It tells the story of how a star athlete uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive advantage over his better-funded opponents. This book revolutionized sports. Fans and football club boards no longer wanted to settle for subpar statistics or analytics. What Moneyball did was take the old cliché – “sports is a business” and make us move on to the next logical question – “how do we do things smarter?”
Now let’s talk about advanced analytics. Advanced analytics in today’s world plays a big role in every business sector. Advanced analytics has been a boon for us. Moving from descriptive analytics to prescriptive analytics, we have actually come a long way. In various jobs, where the requirements are demanding, advanced analytics is of utmost importance.
When we look at football, it’s a game that doesn’t require too much machine intelligence, it’s a game that needs a human element. When you bring in analytics and technology and try to reduce the human element in sports, it just destroys the spirit of the game.
Reliance on analytics has greatly diminished the long game of the Premier League and brought pressing, continuous tiki-taka passing. Each league had its own style of play. The Premier League had a brash and brash style of football that was dubbed “the way real men play football”. There were nice long balls, sharp moves, but all the players just sucked it up, kicked it out and it was up to the referee on the field whether to punish the offender or not. There were arguments and fights, the passion of the fans was crazy, it was football that screamed with passion, when players faced other players without fear of punishment. The Eric Cantona’s, the Ivan Genaro Gattuso’s, the Jaap Stam’s of the football world soon disappeared and the diving and biting began. Then there was the tiki-taka style of football played in Spain’s La Liga, a silky style of play that caught everyone off guard. The legendary Pep Guardiola and his army in Barcelona were masters of tiki-taka. There was Real Madrid, who were always a star-studded squad with exaggerated parts of their game relying on quick counters that often left their opponents stunned. There was Manchester United who had their own brand of football managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. That United team was a team of pure courage and character. Each of these leagues had its own beauty and the teams had their own style of play.
When you throw in excessive technology and analytics, unfortunate technologies such as VAR (Video Assistant Referees) emerge.
There are 3 stages to how VAR works:
An incident is happening
The referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends to the referee that the decision/incident should be reviewed.
VAR review and advice
The video is reviewed by the VAR, who advises the referee through headphones what the video is showing.
A decision or action has been taken
The referee decides to review the pitchside video before taking the appropriate action/decision, or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action/decision.
Now the referee can consult the VAR for any doubts he wants to clarify. What does this do?
• Removes the human element from the game.
• Takes up too much time and brings too much downtime to a game that was previously free and continuous.
This makes it similar to Formula 1 racing. The analytics that led to the fuel weight management system and numerous pit stops broke the continuity of the race, and viewership decreased as technology increased. A rather similar trend could occur in football if this application becomes mandatory.
The positive side of advanced analytics in football:
Analytics is not that bad in football. Take the case of Simon Wilson coming to Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was initially a consultant for an analytics startup called Prozone. He joined Citi to launch an analytics division and hire top data analysts under him. He wanted to change the way football teams used data. He saw that after a defeat there is no introspection about why they lost and what should have been done next time. City were a mid-table club at the time. In September 2008, when the club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Development and Investment Group, a private equity firm owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, the team suddenly found themselves with the resources necessary to challenge for the Premier League. Today, Wilson is Manchester City’s Strategic Performance Analysis Manager. He has five departments under him, including a performance analysis team, now led by a sports scientist named Ed Sully.
After each match, team performance data would be examined. The list is extensive. Previously, line breaks (rugby term), ball possession, pass success rate, win and turnover ratio were analyzed. “Instead of looking at a list of 50 variables, we want to find five, say, that are really important to our style of play,” says Pedro Marquez, Manchester City’s match analyst.
“With the right data sources, the algorithms will produce statistics that have a strong relationship with wins and losses.” Wilson recalls a period when Manchester City had not scored from a corner in more than 22 games, so his team decided to analyze over 400 goals scored. from the corner. It has been noted that about 75 percent are the result of in-swinging corners, the type where the ball bends towards the goal. In the next 12 games of the following season, City scored nine goals from corners.
Teams today are investing heavily in analytics, and it’s working in their favor. Look at where Manchester City are today, sitting at the top of the Premier League table and not threatened at all. Look at Manchester United this season, their game has been one where their possession percentages are low but their goal conversions are high. In the Manchester derby on 7th April 2018, United only had 35% possession but managed to beat City 3-2. Each team has its own set of analysts who provide input according to the team’s strengths.
Advanced analytics is like the Two Face coin in Batman: “Heads you die, tails you live!”
It can reap crazy rewards from a team’s point of view, but at the same time it can disrupt a wonderful game by introducing unnecessary pauses, repetitions, and removing the human element from it. Numerous replays and different angles show the fans whether the referee made a mistake or not. Let mistakes happen, after all, to err is human. Refereeing in football is not an exact science and everything is in real time. Let there be a discussion about the decision, let the passion in the discussion pass. Do you want to watch a football match like El Classico or Manchester Derby and sit with your bunch of friends and say “that was a very clean game, the best team won!” Hell no! Don’t drive the passion out of football with technology and analytics. Let football be football and keep technology away!
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